What is Agriculture in 2018

The Agriculture Bill is very important draft legislation.  We might expect it to define agriculture itself with a new definition fit for the 21st century and our post-Brexit future.  But the closest it seems to get is clause 13 which tells us that ‘agriculture includes any growing of plants, and any keeping of creatures, for the production of food or drink’.  Agriculture here is however, only defined in the narrow context of “agri-food supply chain(s)”.  Nowhere in the bill does there seem to be a definition of agriculture for the bill’s broader purpose.

Contrast this with the vision of the 1947 Agriculture Act which told us that:

“agriculture” includes horticulture, fruit growing, seed growing, dairy farming and livestock breeding and keeping, the use of land as grazing land, meadow land, osier land, market gardens and nursery grounds, and the use of land for woodlands where that use is ancillary to the farming of land for other agricultural purposes, and “agricultural” shall be construed accordingly.

What is more, the 1947 Act also defined good husbandry and good estate management.  Good husbandry seems as apposite in 2018 as it did in 1947; perhaps the good estate management of the 1940’s is the good land management of the 21st century.

Should the new legislation be defining these matters for the 21st century, and if so what should the definitions be?

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Health and Harmony: the future of UK Agriculture

Tonight sees the deadline for responses to the Defra (The UK Dept for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Command Paper on future policy for Agriculture.

Despite reading the document carefully I can’t clearly see what the farmer or farm of the future might look like, but I do get a sense of a higher and more demanding regulatory baseline, albeit with an aspiration for it to be administered more sensibly.

Productivity seems to be important (or is that profitability?  Should the two be conflated?) but there are no clear statements on the nature of the productivity improvements – labour productivity? Total Factor Productivity? Capital productivity? In terms of output or value added …..

As a strategy document the Command Paper seems to offer no clear analysis or evaluation of the current ‘state of the industry’ (eg SWOT analysis or the like); little real analysis of the trade environment (PESTEL) or how it might develop post Brexit. There is a kind of acknowledgement that UK farming’s USPs (Unique Selling Points) are about quality and welfare, and its potential to provide ‘public goods’ but is a strategy based on these factors supported by evidence from the marketplace?

This all seems to herald a tough regulatory baseline against which farmers increase the use of automation, Artificial Intelligence and local labour resources, acting cooperatively and with access to a range of insurance products to protect against volatility but with fallback protections from the government against extreme events in which the provision of public goods will somehow be recognised – at the lowest level through compliance requirements, but perhaps through government payments of some sort at higher levels.

The role of the cooperatives may extend to landscape and catchment scale land management. The leading models in terms of current enterprises seem to be pigs and poultry. We can expect to see regression in direct support with the bigger providers potentially seeming to have the most to lose – this looks like an interim period after which all producers will see regular direct payments abolished.  But who can provide more in the way of public goods?  Smallholders or large-scale farmers and land managers?

There is little discussion of husbandry itself, or the more general commercialisation of farming and farmers – a good business focus and discipline would go a long way to addressing many of the omissions from the Command Paper.

This also reflects the absence of commitment to commissioning and using business/market/behavioural/economic research into the industry itself – this would give well informed answers to many of the questions raised. The questions themselves look as if they will limit the scope of consultees’ responses eg the consultation questions on p35 where two lists are offered from which the preferred three options have to be selected from each: what if the bottom three on list one were above your top three on list two?

It looks as if we can expect to see an emphasis on off farm measures – bringing in benefits of public education, health provision, infrastructure, border protections, biosecurity/phytosanitary measures, labour schemes, apprenticeships.  There is not a lot of obvious commitment to agricultural R&D as such.

Business, leadership (HRM), husbandry, science and ethics should be at the core of any future strategy for the industry along with the answers to some basic questions about the role of farming, food production and food self-sufficiency in a modern western economy.  Did you find these in the Command Paper?  I don’t think I did.

A new Agriculture Act is promised.  Perhaps like its 1947 predecessor we need new definitions of good husbandry and sound land management (estate management in the 1947 Act).

Twenty-five year Environment Plan

The Natural Capital Committee has reported its recommendations for a 25-year Environment Plan.  There are five key sections to this important report:

  1. Vision, ambition and goals
  2. Investment needs
  3. Milestones
  4. Governance
  5. Agricultural subsidies post-Brexit

Twelve goals are offered; these include:

  • Breathable air that achieves international standards;
  • Flood protection by various means including natural flood management to protect everybody against a 0.5% probability of flooding:
  • All inland water to be of good status, and coastal waters all to be good for bathing;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions conforming to international targets, including emissions from land-based activities
  • Access to local greenspace and open recreation for all.  The following goals are suggested:
    • One hectare of local nature reserve per 1,000 people;
    • Two hectares of natural greenspace within 300 m of every home;
    • A 20 ha greenspace within 2 km of every home
    • No suggestion is made that the effect of this has been modelled and compared with the current state of provision.

Turning to investments the report proposes 11 items and these include:

  • 250,000 ha of woodland by 2040;
  • All peat to be in favourable condition;
  • Restoration of hydrological cycles including channel restoration and natural flood management measures;
  • New National Parks (no suggestions as to where);
  • Farm funding to be limited to public goods and high welfare standards;
  • Working closely with Local Nature Partnerships;
  • Developer contributions via planning etc to be pooled for natural capital investment;
  • An enhanced capacity for citizen action and involvement;
  • Natural Capital Net Gain principle which would apply to planning, environmental regulation and public procurement wherever possible;
  • Despite being referred to as investments, none of these are funded or compared with the status quo.

Five year milestones are proposed, which need to be supported by a natural capital risk register; accounting measures; cost benefit appraisal approaches and natural capital balance sheets.  Pp 8 and 9 of the report make particular mention of the private sector in this respect but do not expand on this point.

It is proposed that there should be a State of the Environment Report by 2019 and that this should be updated regularly.  For governance the committee propose that the 25 year Environment Plan should be placed on a statutory footing under the authority of a single organisation, with a separate independent body on the lines of the National Audit Office to report regularly on progress.

The final section is concerned with agricultural policy and is perhaps the vaguest part of the report.  Much is made of the examples of market orientated projects like South West Water’s involvement in Upstream Thinking.  Although the report claims that several water companies are involved in such schemes, this is the only example to be cited.  There are indeed other examples and it is a shame that the report does not address more fully the challenges in developing new thinking in this area compared with its more defined focus in earlier sections.

Perhaps on the other hand however, this should be welcomed by those of us who have spent a lifetime involved in day to day management of rural estates and farms as an opportunity still to bring practical common sense and hard-earned local knowledge to further deliberations on these matters.

This provides the perfect opportunity to finish on an event being organised by the Ecosystem Knowledge Network with the Tatton Estate and the Country Land and Business Association on Natural Capital for Rural Estate Professionals at the end of October.  The latest report from the Natural Capital Committee is an important step forward in defining our rural future – do come and join us to see how this might begin to look on the ground.

 

Land Management Today

Masthead design

Land Management TODAY – LMT – is published for the first time today.  The first edition is the work of a group of postgraduate students at Harper Adams University who came together at the end of June to study a module called Land Use and Management.  The first edition contains 28 short articles covering a range of topics.  Download your copy of LMT here: Land Management Today July 2017.

Here is the full contents list:

  1. How farming is set to lose its flavour
  2. Buying into Ecosystem Services – whetting the appetite for diversification
  3. Battery storage, the next big thing for energy production?
  4. Branding: Rural Estates in the head and on the ground
  5. Bringing Back Britain’s Trees
  6. Avoiding Failure with Forwards and Futures .
  7. Smother With Cover: black-grass .
  8. A Tale of Two Leys
  9. Will Dairy Cows Ever See a Human?
  10. Conventional v Organic: Breaking Down Barriers
  11. Diversity & Inclusion; The £24 billion boost
  12. Farm smart in the hills
  13. The Drones are Coming
  14. Finding your perfect partner: Relationships not Rules for land tenure success
  15. State Open for Business
  16. Tax simplification; anything but simple
  17. Spring Budget Basics for Taxation on Rural Estates
  18. Brexit for Breakfast
  19. Agricultural Trade: “Preparing for the Worst, Hoping for the Best”
  20. Soil Health Subsidies
  21. Countryside Stewardship Scheme
  22. Telecommunications-The Implications for Rural Land Owners
  23. Telecoms and the Rise of Statutory Powers
  24. Compulsory Purchase: RICS mandates practice with new PS
  25. Make sure you don’t lose out with Business Rates
  26. No Growth in the Greenbelt
  27. Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship and Capital Grants – are you missing a trick?
  28. H-App-y Maps
  29. Contributor Profiles

This is the first in what we hope will continue as a series of occasional papers on current topics of concern to land management today.

New Brexit Blog

I have set up a new blog site solely dedicated to Brexit, Farming and the Rural Economy.

You can see it here, and in particular a page of links to useful information which I hope to keep updated with relevant publications and other sources of Brexit information as they appear.

I hope you will find it a useful resource.  Please send in any suggestions for material you think is needed, or other suggestions for its development.